Friday, March 23, 2012

Recollections - Strange Incidents

If we were to sit back and contemplate, I am sure all of us would recall some strange incidents which have taken place in our lives. These incidents are not ordinary run of the mill happenings, but something special and out of place. Over a period of time we tend to stop thinking about these unusual episodes and make way for new ones. In spite of the long passage of time, these unique events remain etched in our memory, only to surface whenever we look back in life and recollect.

Stranded in Bandipur Forest

It was the summer of 1992 and I was on annual leave in Bangalore. I borrowed my friend Niranjan’s car – a Zen and drove to Coonoor along with my wife Jai, children Vivek and Akhila. We spent a wonderful week in Wellington with my S in L Girija, hubby Shankar, and their children Shreya and Karin. On the way back my M in L decided to come with us in the car. The journey was smooth till we reached Bandipur forest and suddenly the car stalled and came to a complete stop. We were in the middle of nowhere – endless tracts of dried forest trees - no sight of any human habitation – an eerie silence. It was nearing 5pm and the traffic had already died down and for quite some time, not a single vehicle crossed us. The sun had started to set and there was no sign of any help. Sunset in the forest is sudden and complete – an extremely scary thought.

Then all of a sudden, a blue Maruti 800 with two boys and a girl stopped to find out what was wrong. The older of the two boys immediately took charge and sent the younger boy with the girl to Nanjangud town, which was 24 Km away, to get a mechanic. An hour later, the duo returned, saying that the mechanic wanted the car to be brought to Nanjangud for repairs. Many attempts to start the engine failed and finally we approached a village house and purchased a length of rope to tow the car.

In the mean time, the older boy told us that the girl was his fiancée and the boy was his younger brother. They were returning from Coonoor after their engagement ceremony and were on their way to Mysore. The boy was getting married in Bangalore and proceeding to Mombasa in Kenya.

We tied our car to their Maruti 800 and the towing operation commenced. We reached Nanjangud only to be told that it was beyond the local mechanic’s capability. The towing continued till we reached a garage in Mysore known to this family. Thereafter the boy took all of us to ‘Hotel Airlines’ and ensured we were safe and settled for the night. Before departing he apologized for having made us spend a night in the hotel saying, “I am sorry, our house is full of relatives who have come for the wedding, or else you could have stayed with us.”

The next morning, the garage owner delivered the car to the hotel. After having settled all the dues, we sat down for a cup of coffee – that’s when I told him, “Those gentlemen went out of the way to help us and they were really very nice and genuinely concerned – I find it odd and extremely rare.”The garage owner said, “Sir, Naresh and I have been friends for a long time and both of us belong to a club and our motto is, ‘Help someone in need and in turn they will help someone else in their own time – before you know it, there will be a whole lot of people doing something helpful and spreading this message’.

My Maruti Omni and Daku Fauji

In an extremely unguarded moment, I made a very foolish decision and bought a second hand – (and as I found out later) accident restored, red Maruthi 800 Omni from a car dealer in Gurgaon in 1983. The car was jinxed and it spelt disaster right from the start. It would suddenly stop; or just refuse to start and so on. In short, the car had an attitude.Inspite of all the shortcomings and uncertainty, I drove the car to Jaipur, Sariska and Shimla with the family – powered entirely on hope and a bit of luck.

After an excellent holiday spent in Haridwar, Dehradun and Mussoorie, we were driving back to Delhi. Somewhere along the way we had unknowingly taken a wrong road which was horrible – full of pot holes, kaccha stretches and at places there was no semblance of a road at all. Crawling at a speed of 30-45kmph over the rough patches, we eventually reached a village check post some 30 km from Muzaffarnagar and it was nearing sun set. The local police constable informed us that a dacoit by the name of ‘Fauji’ was operating in that area and all the vehicles had to proceed further under escort. The police decided to make my car the lead vehicle and a policeman with a rifle embarked the car. By the time the convoy was formed, the sun had set and the whole area was in pitch darkness. The policeman said, “Chalo sahib,” and I immediately started the car. To my utter horror the car refused to start, even after many attempts. The poor policeman in exasperation decided to dismount from our car and the convoy proceeded without us.

It was very frightening to face this problem in a strange place with two girls and a young boy. Suddenly my daughter burst out crying out of fear and desperation. On my part, my mind went blank, not knowing what lay ahead. The only policeman on duty asked us to go to a nearby village and procure a rope for towing the car. I was faced with a dilemma – should I go, leaving the family behind or send my son alone. While I stood motionless wondering what to do, the policeman flagged a lorry to stop. Fortunately the lorry had a length of rope and our car was tied to its back. We thanked the policeman profusely and the towing started. Unfortunately the length of tow was less which made the car extremely unstable. The car swayed from one side of the road to the other and at every turn it threatened to go off the road completely. The bad state of the road and the huge potholes made the towing even scarier and more dangerous. There was no way of telling the lorry driver to slow down as he couldn’t hear our horn and he continued to zip. The family started to sing a prayer, “Veera Hanuman” and all of us prepared for the worst. After about forty minutes of nerve-racking tension and agony we reached Muzaffarnagar and the lorry stopped in front of an automobile workshop. I walked up to thank the driver and give him some money for his effort. That’s when I found out he was reeking of booze.

Even to this day, I get goose pimples whenever I think of that night ride.

My son and the photo frame

It was December 1981 and we were getting ready to proceed to Wellington Ooty, as I was to join the Defense Services Staff College for a course. We were in the midst of packing our luggage and sending it to Wellington by lorry. Our house on Marine Drive, Mumbai was in a mess with boxes lying all over the house, empty cartons and loose items strewn all over – the house resembled a war zone. Having finished the day’s packing, the whole family proceeded on a scooter to Navy Nagar, Colaba, to collect some posters we had given for framing.

Navy Nagar is an extremely busy area in the Southern part of Mumbai. The entire housing of Western Naval Command personnel along with BARC, a bus terminus, a huge shopping complex and a taxi stand is located in this place. Thousands of people criss cross this area during the day. The frame shop was located next to the busy bus terminus. We alighted from the scooter in front of the shop and I put the vehicle on stand. Jai stayed behind with Akhila and Vivek came along with me to the shop. While I was conversing with the shop keeper, Vivek was busy standing on his toes and trying to see what was happening inside. A few minutes later the frame was handed over to me and I started to leave and turned to tell Vivek, “Let’s go,” but he wasn’t there.

I went to the scooter and asked Jai if he had come to her,to which she said, “I thought he was with you”. I looked around the shop, no sight of him. I searched the entire row of ships shouting ‘Vivek! Vivek! No luck. I went to the adjoining quarters looking for him – in vain. By now some thirty minutes had passed and our boy of four was missing in an extremely busy corner of Navy Nagar. I ran to the bus stand like a man possessed and started asking all the bus and taxi drivers if they had seen a boy of Vivek’s description.

I came back totally shaken and trembling with fear. By then Jai was made to sit on a chair and a huge crowd had gathered to see what was going on. Free advice poured from every direction, some started to recall horrible and scary incidents to add to our misery. By then all of us had started to imagine the worst and were at our wit’s end. We had never felt so helpless and the thought of losing our son numbed our thinking.

Just as I decided to approach the naval police, we saw Vivek strolling back to the shop, hand in hand with the shop’s delivery boy. What a happy sight – no language can express the cocktail of emotions which enveloped us – joy, happiness, relief, elation, faith in the ultimate, a sudden liberation – then it was a rush of happy tears, hugging, kisses and jubilation all around.

The delivery boy narrated the details of Vivek’s sudden disappearance and equally sudden appearance. While we were waiting in the shop to collect the frame, the youngster left the shop with a frame in his hand and proceeded across the main road. He kept walking and occasionally looking around to check the traffic. That’s when he noticed a small boy following him. The boy’s behavior intrigued him and he decided to cross the road and walk on the opposite footpath. Lo and behold, the boy also crossed the road and continued to follow. Totally perplexed, the youngster thought for a moment and decided to retrace his path back to the shop, hoping the boy would follow him.

What a brilliant application of deductive logic. I shudder to think what would have happened if the youngster hadn’t noticed anything. God is simply great. This is one of those incidents which reinforce s your belief in the Almighty. Everything is possible when He bestows His blessing on you.

In all our visits thereafter, to the crowded Coonoor market, Vivek carried a whistle hung around his neck – I carried one too. At regular intervals, I would blow my whistle and Vivek would respond by blowing his whistle, much to the amazement of all the bystanders. This was the official beginning of ‘Whistle Blowers’

Two years later we were coming out of Colaba vegetable market when suddenly we saw a youngster hanging out on the footboard of bus No 136 and waving and shouting at us – it was none other than Vivek’s savior – that bright delivery chap.

The Coolie at New Delhi Railway Station

It was one of those last few busy days before going to Bangalore on work, when I was running from pillar to post to finish all the pending work in my office at Naval Head Quarters. I went to catch my train straight from work. As I reached the station, I realized that there was absolutely no time to waste and I had to run along with the coolie to catch the train which had just started. The run was extremely exhausting and totally breathless, I sat down to recover. The ‘run and board’ experience had left me dazed for a while. As I settled down I saw a collie running alongside the train, wildly gesticulating in my direction. I sat there staring at him, wondering why the mad fellow was running behind a train. As the train picked up speed, the coolie seemed as if he desperately wanted to convey something to me. In a few seconds the coolie disappeared and I regained my composure. That is when it hit me like a thunder bolt – I had not paid the fellow!

We went to Munnar

After handing over Command of INS Dunagiri, I went Kochi to join my family who were holidaying with Shankar and Girija. A day later, the two families with four children in tow, departed for Munnar in Shankar’s rickety Fiat car. The progress was slow and steady and by lunch time we had crossed the halfway mark. We stopped the car under a shady tree on the side of the road and were making preparations for lunch when a Jeep approached from the opposite direction and stopped. Both Snitch and I were wearing Navy caps and the gentleman asked, ‘Navy, Ya?” and we said, ‘Yes’. The gentleman said, ‘My B in Law is also navy’. We said, ‘Very good,’politely. We were hoping the gentleman would leave without any further Q & A and we could feed four hungry children along with the two restless mothers. But the gentleman continued his interrogation and wanted to know where we were going and where we were planning to stay, etc. The mothers became very perturbed at this insistent Q & A and told us not to encourage him any further – there were whispered asides of -why does he want to know? – be careful! etc. He then told us, “I say, do not stay in the Indo Swiss Artificial Insemination Plant guest house – it’s very far away – city is very far – you won’t enjoy – you stay in my guest house. Having said that, he handed over a bunch of keys and explained the route to the guest house. Rumbling had already started inside the car - do not take the offer – it’s a trap – we will all be locked up ,robbed, tortured – don’t tell us that we did not warn you.

We the brave males however, accepted the gracious offer of the gentleman and took the keys. He told us that the guest house was well stocked and asked us to enjoy our stay and hand over the keys to his sister in an adjoining village on our way back.

After some three hours of driving we reached the ‘Revenue Department of Kerala’ guest house. It was a lonely and beautiful bungalow, situated on top of a hillock. To add to the mystery of the house, the hillock had a tall tree with a solitary owl perched on top. The girls refused to enter the house saying it may be haunted or there may be some dead bodies hidden in the cupboard – they couldn’t for the life of them understand why a stranger should hand over his house keys in this day and age.

After some heavy persuasion, we finally moved in and settled down.

We stayed in the bungalow for three days and had a fantastic holiday. The children were thrilled and had a whale of time organizing camp fires and barbeques every night. The girls ended up taking charge of the kitchen and preparing lovely breakfast and picnic lunches for our daytime treks. In the end the holiday turned out to be one of the best we’ve ever had.

We bought a cake and the children wrote a ‘Thank You’ note to the nameless gentleman. Later, as instructed, we handed over the keys along with the cake and note to his sister in the village.

People do the strangest things sometimes.